NLC’s unwarranted attack on Akume

Senator George Akume, Secretary to Government of the Federation (SGF), is used to making routine speeches while inaugurating committees or performing other functions as part of his loaded schedule as the monitor and coordinator of federal government’s policies. Routine speeches, yes, but not the earthshaking statement he made last week, while receiving the National Executive Council (NEC) of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN).

Akume, a quintessential public servant who is known for his calmness, unequivocally, told the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) that shutting down the national grid during the recent nationwide strike was treasonable felony and economic sabotage. Akume’s thunderous statement has continued to reverberate because, for once, someone in government called the bluff of the labour leaders by bluntly telling them they cannot be a law onto themselves, and that they had, in fact, violated the rights of millions of Nigerians with reckless abandon.

Akume said: ”Nowhere in the world has labour ever tampered with the national grid. It is treason! Treasonable felony is economic sabotage; you don’t do that.” The SGF had good reasons to be blunt, as he stressed that the NLC had crossed the red line in its agitation for a new minimum wage.

Indeed, the SGF was on a very solid ground in his assertion that the action of the NLC leadership is tantamount to treason and punishable by the provisions of the Trade Disputes (Essential Services) Act 1975 No 23. The NLC owes Akume a debt of gratitude for calling their attention to the existence of the law and its consequences. It is safe to assume that the leadership of the NLC are unaware of the Trade Disputes Act of 1975. If they are, they wouldn’t have issued their laughable statement which further exposed the present leadership as more brawn than brain. Like they say, ignorance is a disease, but that of the NLC is palpable.

Akume is vigorously backed by the section on penalties for acts calculated to disrupt the economy, especially sub-section (1)a which stops officials of the labour union from engaging in acts calculated at disrupting the economy. It reads: any employer or any official of an association of employers or any official of a trade union who is or has been engaged in acts calculated to disrupt the economy or acts calculated to obstruct or disrupt the smooth running of any essential service commits an offense that’s punishable by a fine or imprisonment.

For the avoidance of doubt, the Act expressly forbids and empowers the president to proscribe any trade union whose members are employed in essential services who disrupt essential services like the switching off of the National Grid and locking up of government offices to enforce the strike. It reads “An Act to empower the President to proscribe any trade union or association the members of which are employed in any essential service if such union or association has been engaged in industrial unrest or acts calculated to disrupt the smooth running of any essential service”.

The NLC must take note that in the event of proscription, the SGF is the undertaker by virtue of the Act.

The organised labour, comprising the NLC and Trade Union Congress (TUC), had on June 3 embarked on a strike action in response to what it claimed was “the federal government’s refusal to conclude the national minimum wage negotiations, reverse electricity tariff hike, and end discriminatory consumer classifications”.

The SGF, indeed, spoke the minds of millions of victims of the callous and wicked act of the NLC, and deserves commendation for his patriotism. Others who have since joined forces with the SGF in calling out the NLC include Senate President Godswill Akpabio, Dr. Doyin Okupe and Comrade Isa Tijjani, Interim Chairman, Labour Veterans and Trade Unionists’ Assembly, a former National Vice President of the NLC, and former National Deputy President, National Union of Petroleum Workers (NUPENG).

Comrade Tijjani, like the SGF, was not only miffed by the shutting down of the National Grid but by the “apes obey” manner labour conducted the entire strike which he described as being in gross contravention of the International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions specifically aimed at protecting essential service sectors from such disruption. Considering the various positions Comrade Tijjani had held in the labour movement, he is on sure ground.

In an open letter to the NLC, he wrote “Once again, we write to express our anger and grave dissatisfaction with the way the recent strike was conducted by the Nigeria Labour Congress. In particular, we are miffed by the apparent treasonable felony committed by the striking labour leaders in bringing down the national grid, stopping citizens from going about their legitimate businesses, forceful eviction of law abiding citizens from their offices and employment of force and arm twisting tactics on people to abide by the strike”.

But the NLC, rather than admit that its unpardonable action was a treason and tender an unreserved apology to Nigerians, embarked on a campaign of calumny on the person of the SGF, its stock in trade. The NLC has also hurled scathing insults on Senator Akpabio for agreeing with Akume that labour committed high treason by shutting down the national grid, which threw the entire country into darkness and inflicted severe hardship on innocent Nigerians who had no dog in the fight.

While Nigerian workers have the constitutional right to strike, they have no right to resort to illegal means to enforce their demands. Locking up offices and forcing workers out are criminal acts and the sophistry about fighting for the rights of workers would not make it right.

Nigerians have short memories, otherwise they would have easily remembered that the President Ibrahim Babangida administration had jailed 11 workers of the defunct National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), for switching off the national grid during one of their numerous strikes.

The President Bola Tinubu administration should expect more rascality from labour so long as Joe Ajaero remains the president of the NLC. As the Secretary General of the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE), Ajaero had shown preference for violence rather than dialogue in the resolution of disputes. The people of Kaduna state in May 2021 experienced Ajaero’s motorpark brand of unionism firsthand, when he switched off the national grid and threw the state into darkness over labour dispute with the Kaduna state government. The fact that Ajaero got away with his Kaduna antics had, no doubt, emboldened him to shut down the national grid again during the ill advised strike that further crippled a country grappling with security and economic problems.

The National Assembly should equally consider amending the 1999 Constitution to move the issue of minimum wage from exclusive list to the concurrent list. Nigerians desire a functional federation and not a unitary system. States should pay what they can. President Tinubu who is an advocate of restructuring must bequeath Nigerians with a true federal system that works.

We need to settle the usual drama surrounding the minimum wage issue.

Clearly, the NLC is suffering the fate of organisations that bluntly refuse to reform. Tragically locked in the past, it would definitely become irrelevant with time unless it reforms. The NLC must stop being a bread and butter union.

While the NLC is always quick to allege that the political elite loot the treasury, divert public resources meant for hospitals and schools; engage in foreign exchange round tripping, budget padding and contract inflation, it refuses to acknowledge that the public servants are willing collaborators in these alleged corrupt practices. Again, whining about a corrupt political system when labour itself swims in corruption is tantamount to pot calling kettle black.

It is unfortunate that there are no indications that the NLC is taking steps to address the quality of its leadership, which has tragically continued to diminish and consequently affected its capacity to robustly react to critical national issues. Its reaction to any contemporary issue can be predicted; it would be jackboot and, worse still, bereft of substance because it is living in the past.

Senator George Akume should do well to focus on helping President Tinubu to deliver on his campaign promises of job creation, diversifying the economy, improving security etc, and simply ignore the NLC which is clearly suffering from leadership crisis and is a shadow of itself.
Ado writes from Kaduna, Kaduna state